March 15, 2019

Warehouses find ROI in AMRs

RK Logistics adds Fetch Robotics units in move to reduce worker fatigue and boost hiring.

By Ben Ames

Third-party logistics provider (3PL) RK Logistics Group is scaling up its deployment of autonomous mobile robots (AMRs), saying the bots will support the firm's time-critical warehousing and distribution operations while reducing worker fatigue and boosting recruitment efforts in a tight job market.

Fremont, Calif.-based RK said Thursday it has completed testing and has deployed Fetch Robotics Inc.'s CartConnect units as part of its picking and kitting operations, using the AMRs to move employee-completed orders from assembly areas to shipping.

The deployment of the new AMRs will drive additional efficiencies and productivity into fulfillment and shipping operations that support high-tech manufacturing clients, according to RK Logistics President Rock Magnan. "The real benefit of AMRs is that they relieve employees from tedious, low-value work, such as walking a cart full of items from order assembly areas to shipping, and then walking back," Magnan said in a release. "It improves the workplace experience for the employee, makes them more efficient, and frees up time for them to focus on more higher-value activity."

That is a similar approach to an announcement made Thursday by the "fast fashion" retailer Tobi that it would deploy picker robots and a cloud-based Robotics-as-a-Service (RaaS) automation system from Los Angeles-based InVia Robotics. Those robots are intended to optimize operations at the firm's Reno, Nev., warehouse for handling e-commerce fulfillment, using automation to add efficiency and accuracy, boosting DC productivity and fulfillment without disrupting operations, Tobi said.

San Jose, Calif.-based Fetch Robotics has also been growing quickly in recent months, announcing a collaboration in 2018 with Honeywell International Inc. to provide distribution centers with AMRs, and launching a partnership in January with Ryder System Inc. to launch "showcase sites" that demonstrate advanced automation and real-time visibility in warehouse applications.

In the latest application, RK Logistics was already using three of Fetch's HMIShelf AMRs and has now added two of the firm's CartConnect AMRs, Magnan said in an email. All five units operate at RK Logistics' largest warehouse facility, located in Livermore, Calif., and the company may add more robots as Fetch develops and improves its portfolio of models, he said. For example, RK is already looking into robots with heavier carrying capacity that can move pallets.

The company calculates a return on investment (ROI) from deploying the robots by leasing instead of buying the units, allowing RK Logistics to easily upgrade to the latest models as they become available, he said. On that pure dollar savings basis, the robots provide a slight cost-saving contribution margin to the company, but their greatest contribution comes in improving the nature of work performed by RK Logistics' employees, he said.

"Robots relieve employees of the more physical work of moving products, which can be fatiguing," Magnan said in an email. "We therefore get more utility out of our skilled employees who are doing more value added work—such as picking and completing more orders more accurately. That's harder to calculate [as] an ROI metric, but represents a real benefit of using the robots to do the tedious, wasteful, non-value added work, such as walking a cart of orders across the warehouse to shipping (and back), and having to physically lift the boxes multiple times."

Employees save an hour or more per day by not having to walk throughout the warehouse, avoiding fatigue and allowing them to focus on more value added work. "Heavy lifting and long periods of walking are what tires the worker out. This is what the robots take over from the worker," Magnan said. "They continue to do the preferred, more intellectually challenging work they are trained to do and more of it, and less of the more tedious, tiring work of pushing parts around. It's work enrichment that translates into a more satisfied workforce."

RK Logistics deploys the robots alongside other automated sorting and storage technologies, such as eight three-story tall Vertical Lift Machines (VLMs) which house thousands of small parts, such as screws, nuts, bolts, washers and other small components, which are stored in rotating bins. The facility also has a two-story high carousel that handles reels of wire, hose, cable and other products which are awkward or difficult to handle.

The robots fit into those operations by moving completed orders from picking, kitting, and assembly areas to shipping, making workers faster and more efficient and requiring them to exert less physical energy, he said.

About the Author

Ben Ames
Senior Editor
Ben Ames has spent 20 years as a journalist since starting out as a daily newspaper reporter in Pennsylvania in 1995. From 1999 forward, he has focused on business and technology reporting for a number of trade journals, beginning when he joined Design News and Modern Materials Handling magazines. Ames is author of the trail guide "Hiking Massachusetts" and is a graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism.

More articles by Ben Ames

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